Fruit left to rot as US farmers struggle with labor shortage
by Rob Woollard
A Mexican flag waves close to the wall which separates Mexico from the United States, in Tijuana, state of Baja California. Tougher US-Mexico border controls are having an acute impact on American produce growers, farmers groups say, with tonnes of fruit and vegetables left rotting amid crippling labor shortages.(AFP/File/Omar Torres)
LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Tougher US-Mexico border controls are having an acute impact on American produce growers, farmers groups say, with tonnes of fruit and vegetables left rotting amid crippling labor shortages.
Farms across the United States are reporting shortfalls in the number of available workers, which in many cases has caused crops to go unpicked.
Blame for the lack of labour is laid squarely at the door of a crackdown on illegal workers crossing the US-Mexico border and the absence of flexible legislation that would allow farmers to hire workers on a seasonal basis.
Toni Scully, co-owner of Scully Packing in northern California's Lake County, said she usually hired 900 fruit pickers to harvest their crop during the three-week window. This year, however, she could only find 500 workers.
"We think about 40 percent of our workers didn't come because of the increased security on the border," Scully told AFP.
"By our estimates we've left about 20 to 30 percent of the crop either hanging on the tree or lying on the ground because we couldn't pick it," she added. "It's just heartbreaking because we had a beautiful crop."
Scully said the labor shortages had not been felt as severely amongst growers of other produce in the region, whose crops were lower this year for unrelated reasons such as adverse weather.
"That's the important thing to bear in mind -- other crops like cherries and raisins were down from 20-40 percent this year and yet many growers still struggled to get everything picked," Scully said.
"If they'd had good crops, then what has happened to us would have been played out across California."
Scully's problems are far from an isolated case, according to farmers trade groupings.
The Western Growers Association, whose 3,000 members in California and Arizona account for around 50 percent of the United States' fresh produce, said the labour squeeze was being felt widely.
"We are getting reports almost on a daily basis from our membership," said WGA spokesman Tim Chelling. "If it's not a crisis then it's certainly close to a crisis. Millions of dollars have been lost so far."
Chelling also said the industry was also losing workers to better paid jobs in the construction and tourism sector.
To combat the problem, the WGA wants Congress to overhaul existing labour laws governing migrant workers.
"The WGA's position is that there should be a complete reform of immigration policies relating to these workers," Chelling told AFP.
"We are seeking a large, stable workforce. At the moment, it's a mess. The policy is a sick policy, and things are getting worse rather than better."
A bill before Congress known as "AgJobs", which would create a program to allow people who have worked in agriculture for a specified period of time to get green cards, failed to be put to a vote in Congress on Friday.
The bill's supporters sought to have it attached to legislation creating a 700-mile (1,100-kilometer) fence on the Mexican border.
Prominent California Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein warned of a worsening crisis in the farm sector unless legislation was introduced.
"It is a disaster, and it will be a very costly disaster, for the farm community as well as for the consumers of America," Feinstein said.
California's other Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer echoed Feinstein's warning. "This is tragic for us," Boxer said. "We could lose these farmers. We could lose agriculture."
Despite the bill's failure to progress, Toni Scully says she is grimly optimistic that a solution will be found before next year.
"The writing is on the wall for next year," Scully said.
"But I am optimistic that we will be able to make our point and that the American people will realise that we need to provide the people who grow our food with the workers to do it," she said.
"If we don't, then our family farmers are going to be driven out of business for lack of workers ... the alternative is to be dependent on foreign food like we are on foreign oil."